DNA Labs: Skinny Mobile - Managing complexity and scalability.
Building a new platform is a challenge - but one that can be managed by establishing clear requirements, focussing on prioritisation and ensuring disciplined collaboration between client and design teams. Achieving sustainable software delivery post launch is a whole new challenge - one that is defined by a need to balance product ambition, business, user and technical requirements, plus the need to scale and optimise the product so it continually performs for users and the business.
Over the last 5 years, Skinny Mobile has gone through a remarkable transformation. When they first approached DNA they had recently gone through a new strategy change, brand redevelopment and were now poised to move forward. We worked with them to integrate with their CRM, payments provider, product distribution and knowledge-base in order to deliver a compelling user experience and allow customers to self-serve through the website. The results came through rapidly, Skinny converted over 150,000 new customers to their offer and service in the first year. It was a good start.
Growth needs focus.
Over the last 4 years, Skinny has continued enhancing and adding to their offer. This included adding broadband as a product, streamlining the switching process to help lower the barrier to entry and many more projects as Skinny’s requirements and infrastructure have changed. The market Skinny calls home is fast and dynamic - which led to our relationship needing to accommodate a lean business approach with aggressive KPIs and often very demanding time frames to market and business requirements.
Skinny is a relatively lean organisation, so DNA and Skinny have worked closely over the years to define and prioritise the challenges and solutions in order to get the best result. As each project has impacted the code, we’ve had to work through the ramifications for this and performance implications. Some projects have meant re-thinking architecture in order to deliver a simple user experience with all the complexity hidden behind the scenes. Other projects have helped Skinny manage and streamline performance and processes as their platform has grown.
All of this has required a 'Product rather than project' oriented thinking. Simple solutions which worked well when the site was new and Skinny was beginning, had to be rethought as the data increased in some areas over a hundred-fold.
Evolution means change.
As each of the projects has come through, Skinny and DNA have been working on our process to ensure the best result. This has resulted in changes on both sides. Typically a BA sets out the requirements for a project and the vendor works to deliver them. DNA has worked to ensure that the user requirements have been well represented and advocated for in each project. We’ve worked to make sure the technical requirements and limitations are also factored in. We need to ensure that the performance ramifications are factored in, APIs support getting the data required and the work required to implement is justified against the project goals and benefits.
Data keeps growing.
The natural result of a complex system – with highly relational datasets – is that any given set of data may have a measurable rate of growth, but the combination of these sets can have an exponential impact. In Skinny’s case, the need to use data to deliver to business and user needs required careful planning and constant review. It also required a clear understanding of the business logic in the solution architecture to support the addition of new products (e.g. Broadband) over time.
The task of balancing business, user and technical requirements is hard, the process is not linear. Business requirements have needed to step back from defining solutions and ensure they communicate the problem. They’ve often been sent through in draft, earlier and earlier in the process. This ensures that the solution can be thought about holistically. We’ve learnt that user experience considerations have often redefined the project so that significant parts of the business requirements have been redundant.
Desirable means viable.
We regularly use 3 factors – desirability, feasibility and viability – to plan and execute projects and products. In our work with Skinny, we've developed a couple of additional mantras that have served us well over the last few years; maintenance is never passive; investment needs a payday; customers want more for less. We’ve used these to guide the platform as its scale, complexity and importance as a revenue stream has increased.
If the task of balancing the business, user and technical requirements is hard, balancing them with every other previous iteration of the platform is harder. Skinny.co.nz has not been a project or even a series of projects – it is a product. As such, it has required being thought of as a living, evolving and continuously improving entity. As relatively independent projects have materialised within Skinny, our teams have worked to rationalise these in the wider context.
Each project added new features to the ecosystem but also had to exist with all that has gone before. Sometimes projects created entirely new processes, but more often than not, they were embedded within existing systems. This requires robust thought and surgical development to ensure the overall experience is not compromised and the product remains effective.
Improvement is continual.
Websites are not set-and-forget exercises. Even if they are purely content, the content is still an interdependent system, not unrelated pages. When you build a product like Skinny.co.nz, which is a CMS, shop and app, the stakes are higher and the complexity increases risk. Managing a product like this requires navigating high levels of detail while not losing sight of the overall context. Historically websites have either been owned by marketing or IT, it’s encouraging to see companies break down these silos and move towards digital teams with real ownership, context, roadmaps and vision for their products.
Some things never change – the business is growing at a great rate, and customers still expect Skinny to deliver the simplest experience and great value with each and every product they offer.
Skinny’s initial launch was a start, a good start, but the real work of creating and managing a product had only just begun.
John Milmine _ Technical Director.
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